Alexandra Hagen coronavirus opinion

"We are gaining the momentum needed to create a carbon-free society"

One year after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, Alexandra Hagen, CEO of Swedish architecture studio White Arkitekter, responded to our questions about its impact with a list of six ways Covid-19 will change cities forever.


The pandemic has escalated the use of available technology, this, in turn, has led to new behaviours that impact how we use our cities and our buildings. This is not a new concept. We have always adapted our way of living to new technologies. The difference now is that change is forced on us quickly. Adopting new technology is more about a change in culture than about innovation.

We have experienced how parts of our cities mainly made up of retail and commercial spaces have lost their street life almost completely, while residential areas are populated around the clock and lack sufficient service.

The needs of people change quickly so the buildings need to change quickly.

One of the short-term impacts on architecture is that we work more actively with transformation. The needs of people change quickly so the buildings need to change quickly. An example from our practice is a hospital building that we completed in 2019 containing 23 operating theatres that were transformed into 64 intensive care units in just 10 days.

Hotels are turned into long-stay housing. Empty shops are used as temporary office hubs. Businesses that don't use their offices are inviting students to use part of their space as the universities close.

The pandemic has made us aware of the need for flexibility. We build structures that are to last for centuries. To maintain their value, they need to be adaptable to change in the short and long term.

The pandemic has also changed the way we use public space. Walking, biking rather than travelling on public transport, meeting in the park, prevents the virus from spreading. Attractive parks and public spaces, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways are more vital to the city than ever before.

The pandemic has finally made both people and politicians raise their voices in demand for sustainable transformation. I hope that we, because of the pandemic, are gaining the momentum needed to create a carbon-free society. As architects and designers, we can make a great impact because design is a powerful tool to achieve change.

Parks and public spaces, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways are more vital to the city than ever before

I'd like to mention six things that will impact our transformation.

1. Quality of life before proximity to the workplace. We will no longer accept commuting for hours every day to get to work. We have learned that many professions can deliver working remotely. Offices will still be important hubs for meetings, social gatherings and collaborative work that cannot be done remotely.

But I predict many businesses will need less space in the city. I also predict the rise of the medium-size city located closely in metropolitan areas because in smaller cities, people can find a better quality of life at a lower cost.

2. Return to the walkable city. Sustainable transformation calls for less transportation. Therefore, there will be a demand for more mixed cities where we have everything we need within walking or biking distance.

We don't want to travel long distances to large scale business districts or shopping centres that shut down at night. We want to spend our days in a thriving diverse environment closer to where we live. This calls for more mixed cities, a return to the qualities of the walkable city if you will.

3. The new rise of culture. Retail plays an important part as a social offering in the city today. However, the pandemic has taught us to consume remotely. Also, sustainable transformation calls for us to consume less.

Retail will probably keep smaller showrooms in the city while stock will be kept outside the city. Social offerings are important to create attraction in a city. Where retail moves out, culture needs to move in to maintain a vibrant city life.

4. Beautiful parks and public spaces. As a result of previous pandemics such as the Spanish flu we've seen investments in public spaces and parks. We know that disease spread more quickly in densely populated areas. Parks and public spaces are important to our health and wellbeing. Beautiful public parks contribute to building the brand of the city, they are also key to achieve biodiversity, prevent flooding and heatwaves in urban areas.

5. Efficient use of existing structures. Empty buildings are death to city life, we've seen this during the pandemic. Empty buildings are also a waste of resources and they produce less income for their owners. I believe we will see a wave of transformation of existing buildings because of the pandemic. To achieve a zero-carbon society we have to be better at using buildings for more than one purpose, using them from being empty large parts of the day.

6. Circular design and reuse. Circular design and reuse have the potential to be a fantastic design challenge. We must design buildings for disassembly. We also must design buildings and objects from reused material. This is the start of a new design era and I'd like to quote Ursula von der Leyen who puts it so well "We need to give our systemic change its own look and feel to match style with sustainability". I look forward to what this journey will be like.

Empty buildings are death to city life

I've been reminded how much I need people, family, friends and colleagues. They give me my energy, inspiration and drive. It is so important to fully appreciate them every day.

I've also learned that life can be led in a simpler way, that can give more time for contemplation, learning, working and enjoying family life. For example, instead of travelling, I've had the chance to take additional university courses this year.

Finally, I've been greatly impressed with our team at White Arkitekter this year. Without missing a beat we've kept our practice up and running through lockdown and across international borders. We've kept our momentum in R&D and we've delivered new innovations to the market. I always knew I'm blessed with creative colleagues but this past year they've been absolutely outstanding.

The main image is of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo's plan to create an "urban forest" in Paris.